A post wherein film writer Kimberly Luperi explores how Bill Robinson danced brilliantly through life.
interview Bill Robinson once remarked, “Why not dance through life?” Robinson
certainly did, despite the adversity he faced as an African-American performer
working in the late 19th century and first half of the 20th.
Famous for his intricate yet precise steps and cheerful performances, Robinson
is said to have brought tap “up on its toes” and is credited with
injecting a new lightness into the style. From busking outside beer gardens and
traveling with minstrel shows during his youth, Robinson eventually worked his
way up to vaudeville, Broadway and finally Hollywood, where he enjoyed the
pinnacle of his popularity.
1935, Robinson signed a contract with 20th Century Fox that
guaranteed him $6500 a week while filming and also permitted him to appear in
theater and nightclub acts, an unusual contractual allowance. Unfortunately,
despite the high esteem his talents earned him, the racial climate of 1930s
Hollywood confined him to lowly, oftentimes undignified roles. Consider this
irony: Robinson sported a ten carat diamond ring that he had to remove before
filming, because the characters he was relegated to play could never afford a
piece like that.
in a handful of films throughout the 30s, but his engaging dance sequences
alongside one of the Depression’s most popular stars, Shirley Temple, are
perhaps his most memorable. Aside from being a delight to watch, certain
routines stand out for Robinson’s creativity and the coverage he received, both
of which allowed him to modestly transcend some of the racial limitations of
With a 50
year age difference between them, Robinson and Temple appeared in four pictures
together and broke new ground as the first interracial dance team
on-screen. The duo’s most famous performance was the staircase dance in THE
LITTLE COLONEL (’35), a Southern-set story in which Robinson plays a butler who
helps care for Temple. Robinson modified the routine’s complex steps to
accommodate his young co-star, devising a plan to have Temple lightly kick each
riser before moving on. In the end, Robinson adopted the same moves, so it
looks like she learns from him. In another stroke of genius, Robinson also
rigged each step to produce a different pitch as they go.
brilliant choreography of this piece displays an ingenuity that confirms his
exceptional abilities; furthermore, the way in which he uses his charm and fancy
footwork to accomplish a common task (in this case, usher Temple to sleep)
stands in stark contrast to the methods of Temple’s strict grandfather (Lionel
Barrymore). Historian John F. Kasson suggests these ideas signify an
“improvisational flight of freedom” on Robinson’s part that help elevate him
above his otherwise restricting butler role.
also garnered considerable praise for THE LITTLE COLONEL (’35). The Los Angeles Times highlighted him alongside Temple and
Barrymore in an article titled “Noted Trio in New Film”; The Billboard deemed the staircase
routine “worth the price of admission alone”; and Variety reported that Robinson
“grabs standout attention” and “reads lines with the best of
Certainly, Robinson and Temple’s chemistry contributed to
the success of their musical collaborations, and off-screen the stars enjoyed a
strong friendship that lasted until Robinson’s death in 1949. Years later,
Temple remarked: "Bill Robinson treated me as an equal, which was very
important to me. He didn’t talk down to me, like to a little girl. And I liked
people like that. And Bill Robinson was the best of all.” If only Robinson
had been treated as an equal during his lifetime, who knows what else he could
“What success I achieved in the theater is due to the fact that I have always worked just as hard when there were ten people in the house as when there were thousands. Just as hard in Springfield, Illinois, as on Broadway.”
Sad news: Dance legend Jeni LeGon passed away on December 7th at the age of 96. Born in Chicago in 1916, Ms. LeGon began her career in the 1930s when she was just sixteen, dancing in a chorus line backed by Count Basie’s Orchestra. She is probably best remembered for dancing with Bill “Bojangles” Robinson in the 1935 film “Hooray for Love”, which also featured Fats Waller. Here is a clip of their number, “Living In A Great Big Way,” where you can watch Ms. LeGon dancing, singing and acting with Mr. Robinson and Mr. Waller.
Dancing great Bill Williamson (Bill Robinson) sees his face on the cover of Theatre World magazine and reminisces: just back from World War I, he meets lovely singer Selina Rogers (Lena Horne) at a soldiers’ ball and promises to come back to her when he “gets to be somebody.” Years go by, and Bill and Selina’s rising careers intersect only briefly, since Selina is unwilling to “settle down."